01.10.2007

Animal Antics

It's been all things animal in my world lately: thenew wildlife documentary The White Planet with its frolickingpolar bears; watching a blue tongue lizard amuse andconfuse a cocker spaniel; and reading about the wonderfullymodest Sir David Attenborough, who shrugs off his skillas a wildlife broadcaster extraordinaire by saying,"I've got birds of paradise on my side. All youhave to do in my business is not stand in between themand the camera." So it seemed a natural segue forme to dip into Pleasurable Kingdom, Animals and thenature of feeling good by Dr Jonathan Balcombe, a researchscientist based in Washington DC.

The premise of this highly accessible book is thatpleasure plays an important part in how animals experiencethe world. In his foreword to the book, Peter Singer(co-author of The Ethics of the Food We Eat) pointsout that most studies in the animal movement have focusedon suffering and neglected to look at animals' capacityfor pleasure. Backed up with an impressive bibliography,Pleasurable Kingdom argues that while animal behaviouris influenced by evolution and survival, animals arenot necessarily responding consciously to these influences.In other words, animals may experience pleasure forpleasure's sake.

In the absence of rigorous proof that pleasure is adaptiveand that feeling good steers animals towards behavioursthat promote survival, he presents a wealth of evidenceand the book is divided into themes such as play, food,touch, sex, love and transcendent pleasures with a quoteintroducing each chapter. One of my favourites is fromJoseph Wood Krutch: "Most robins seem terriblyglad to be eating worms."

The author challenges the idea that humans are thechosen ones and cautions against comparing animal andhuman intelligence levels. A Wilson's warbler couldn'tdo a tax return, for example, but is a super navigatormigrating thousands of miles each spring to return toa patch of woodland it nested in the year before. Andfor anyone who believes sheep are stupid, think again!Sheep can recognise 50 or more members of their flockfrom photographs of their faces. Even more impressive,sheep have been seen to solve the problem of an eightfoot wide, hoof-proof cattle grid by rolling over it.

Some forms of sensory intelligence in the animal kingdomgo beyond the human experience: the ability to see ultravioletlight, to hear at higher or lower frequencies and sensitivityto smells and tastes we cannot detect. The nose of thestar-nosed mole is so well served with tiny nerves that600 could fit on the head of a pin. Could such creaturesbe capable of greater pleasure than humans? Statisticsalso point to impressive social cohesion, and a lower"divorce" rate, in some animal societies -90 per cent of bird species are believed to be monogamousand half mate for life.

There are similarities between man and beast too; allvertebrates share the same physical structure as humansand have five senses. MRI scans show animals experiencesimilar emotions to ours and evidence suggests thatanimals with a backbone experience pain. Animals appearto dream, anticipate the future and plan ahead.

The author clearly has a close bond with animals andis the proud owner of pet rats, Rachel, Veronica andLucy. In the chapter on food, he demonstrates that,given a chance, rats shun the fruit bowl and head forthe donuts, or Balcombe's freshly baked peanut buttercookies. Rats also enjoy a good game of hide and seekand the sensation of being tickled.

The chapter on play and thrill seeking is particularlyengaging. We are all familiar with the antics of catsand dogs, but perhaps less familiar with the idea ofpenguins, otters and bears tobogganing, dolphins surfing,elephants trunk-wrestling, ravens flying upside down,gorillas playing with labradors and red-neck wallabiesplaying tag with magpies. While play helps in the searchfor food and development of physical strength, it seemsthat animals also play for the heck of it. Animals playingin waves or water are often seen going back for another"go" and octopuses, turtles and reptiles climbup slides to repeat the pleasure of going down again.In similar vein, anecdotal evidence suggests that birdsenjoy flight for the sake of it and also sing purelyfor pleasure.

Balcombe advises that the chapter on sex is not forthe faint-hearted. He gives us a tour of the salaciousshenanigans of the animal king - and queendom, explainingthat much sexual activity takes place outside the breedingseason, another example of animals seeking pleasurethat is unrelated to survival. From spinner dolphinsto swallows, quite a few animals seem to indulge inorgies but it is the apes and chimps that have the mostcolourful and, to put it politely, varied sex lives!In summary, animals are neither priggish nor especiallyshy.

On top of sexual abandon, animals, it appears, areno strangers to alcohol and drugs. Birds such as waxwingsand robins in North America gorge on fermented fruits,other birds "smoke bathe" on chimney topsand goats are credited with having discovered coffee.Abyssinian herders in the 10th century noticed theirflocks becoming frisky after nibbling the red berries.

As any animal lover knows, animals have an enormouscapacity for joy, love and loyalty. And it's not justdogs that become overjoyed when reunited with theirowners. Merlin, an eight year old raven in the US, clungto his owner's shoulder all day after a six month absence.Many of us will know the famous story of Scottish dogGreyfriars Bobby, who visited his master's tomb everyday for 14 years.

Parrots are fiercely loyal, too. American biologistJoanna Burger adopted a parrot, Tiko. After five years,Tiko demonstrated extreme jealousy when Joanna nursedan injured hen. But when Joanna was ill, Tiko laid outher hair strand by strand in a fan shape on the bedcovers, rather like a mother brushing her daughter'shair. When Joanna recovered, Tiko performed a celebratoryslide down the banister!

With tales of parrot love, pigeons differentiatingthe paintings of Monet from those of Picasso, chimpanzeesmarvelling at the sunset and fish enjoying their food,this book not only delights, but on a more serious notealso raises ethical and moral questions about how wetreat animals. Pleasurable Kingdom highlights our humanresponsibilities to animals as social beings with awide range of emotions and feelings.

Pleasurable Kingdom, Animals and the nature of feelinggood by Dr Jonathan Balcombe is published by Macmillan.RRP $29.95

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